Brussels-Vienna-Moscow-St Petersburg-Moscow-Novgorod-Moscow flying SN
Brussels Airlines, Austrians Airlines, Pulkovo Airlines, Aeroflot/Rossiya, Sibir.
Sorry no photos of the last 2 flights. By this time, my two cameras were broken. How much bad luck can you have????
Our trip to Russia proved eventful from the first minute. Our itinerary had us flying Brussels to Vienna on SN
Brussels Airlines, connecting to Austrian Airlines to Moscow and onwards on various Russian domestic carriers. The PLAN was to fly SN
Brussels SN2901 0700-0850 BRU
, OS601 1045-1455 VIE
then SU781 to St Petersburg on a venerable TU134 2100-2235. As it turned out we didn’t fly any of the above-mentioned flights.
We were dropped off at Brussels Zaventem Airport in perfect cold winter weather and checked in without issue at the check-in counters. We pretty quickly cleared the boarding pass check and proceeded the very long distance to the new A pier, located in the middle of the apron and accessible by a long underground passage. The distance was long enough that they should really have invested in a "people-mover" train. Security checks were at the end of this tunnel, which was curious as one would imagine that a well organised bomb could do a lot of damage while in the tunnel and to the aircraft parked and taxiing above. Pier A is a massive and very impressive piece of airport terminal infrastructure – much better than anything in oz. However it was at this stage, about 30mins before we were due to depart, that we noticed heavy snow starting to fall outside.
We boarded the aircraft on time – Avro RJ100 OO
(first on this type of aircraft) and took our allocated seats. However, looking at the situation outside we were not surprised to be told soon after by the pilots that Brussels Airport had closed their runway so that it could be cleared. It would take 30mins. About 30 mins later they said it might take another hour and that they would let us back into the terminal. It turned out this was their way of telling us our flight had been canned. I wonder whether I should include this in my logbook – after all I boarded the aircraft and deboarded a while later??? Not that it would increase my mileage count though! Not seeing or flight anywhere on the departure boards we eventually asked at the transfer counter where we finally discovered the flight was cancelled. We were rebooked on SN2905 scheduled for 1245. By this time we knew we had missed our Austrian flight but given they were on different tickets, the Austrian counter were not helpful but eventually put a note in our booking urging VIE
to rebook us on a later flight at no cost.
Our original aircraft, OO
, covered in snow and not going anywhere.
Other aircraft caught in the snow confusion at Brussels
, SN2905, SN
Brussels Airlines, OO
-DWB, Avro RJ100, ETD1245, ETA1435, 1443/1453 r25R/1620 r34/1626. Gate A58 BRU
At around 1230, with the sun shining and aircraft departing and arriving, we boarded our new flight to Vienna, a little fuller now given the merging of two flights. This was to be operated by OO
-DWB, still an ARJ100. The flight and cabin crew were the same as earlier on. However, soon we had the captain on the intercom to tell us that though they were ready to go, the backlog of flights meant that pushback tugs were in high demand, especially as ground snow meant aircraft needed to be pushed back more than usually required. On account of this we were 50th in the queue for pushback which "might take a little while"!!! We pushed back almost exactly 2 hours later. Thankfully we had a great pair of Ukrainian girls in the row in front with a great sense of humour so the time went just that bit faster. Also the crew served drinks – including free access for economy passengers to all business class drinks like champagne and gin and tonics.
The flight itself was uneventful – baguettes were served, not that tasty but good to have something to eat! We landed quite late and after a bus transfer to the terminal, passed through baggage collection and customs with ease.
Then we had to sort out our Moscow flight which had left about 4 hours earlier. The Austrian ticketing lady told us that this was the problem with having flights on two different tickets but then quite happily put us on that night’s flight. Only disappointment is that the evening flight is A320 flight versus an A321 for the morning service. Oh well… We then contacted SN
Brussels about what had happened to our luggage which was tagged on the early flight. We were told this was Austrian’s problem and recommended for us to got to check-in and deal with it there. Which we did. Check-in told us that our luggage would be no problem and issued us with our boarding passes, warning us that the flight was running late due to schedule delays. Maybe it would be the same OS
A320 spotted at Brussels earlier on that day, caught up with everything else.
605, Austrian Airlines, OE-LBU, A320-200, ETD 1955 ETA 0045, 2043/2100 r29/0103 r07/0109. Gate A05 VIE
After sitting around for a few hours enjoying VIE
free wireless internet we boarded our delayed service to Moscow. Flight would have been a little over half full. On the taxi out, we passed the de-icing station, armed with 6 de-icers, 3 on each side of the aircraft. As you taxi in, one rolls forward and very quickly sprays the wings with its moving arm. Hard to describe but it was quite impressive and with its bright strobes looked a little like those scientific submarines you see in marine documentaries. Soon after we took off. Dinner was served (no choice – cheese and spinach filled chick, quite nice) and some video entertainment – an hour long Vienna promo followed by that stupid just for laughs show, but this episode wasn’t even funny. We got a fair bit of turbulence but as always seems to be the case, the seat belt sign was switched on AFTER the turbulence was pretty much finished. Has anyone else ever noticed that?
In the row alongside us was a young Russian man with absolutely no respect for authority – when told to put his seat upright he did so, just to put it straight back down when the stewardess walked away. When told to turn off his laptop for takeoff and landing, he closed the lid, just to open it and continue listening to his music throughout both takeoff and landing. Our first experience of typical Russian behaviour – very little respect for authority and bending any rule that exists (not that any rule is the same anyway, it just depends who you are, how much money you have or who you know).
Landed at SVO
a little after schedule. Great to see the lines of TU154s, 134s, IL62s, 86s and a IL96 ready for takeoff. We were finally in Russia. We got a glimpse of the domestic apron on the one side before turning into the international terminal, SVO2. They even had airbridges! In fact the terminal looked decided western until we descended some stairs and hit the passport control area.
Now no offence to Russians, but they have no manners or thoughts for others in queues or such. Not only were most people in our line marked "foreign passports" Russians with Russian passports, but many were quite willing to shove in front of everyone to get into the line first. It probably took us about 45mins to an hour in the queue to get through, as they were being pretty fastidious with checking everyone carefully. I felt sorry for the one guy who was sent off to fill in the arrival form he obviously hadn’t completed, just to have to join the queue again! Considering this was 0100 in the morning with only 2 flight arrivals (the other an IL86 from Dubai full of Russians operated by some unknown carrier – the plane was all white!).
Not surprisingly our bags were already waiting by the time we were through. But then we had to pass customs. The queue through the green channel was once again quite long – some people elected to use the red channel to get through quicker. Once again there was a particularly pushy Russian woman trying to push in but by now we were wise and we made sure she didn’t get in front of us. I think the way her trolley found its way to the back of my ankles "by mistake on purpose" a number of times may have been her response.
Once out our main aim was to try and purchase a domestic flight to St Petersburg for the next morning, having well and truly missed our planned flight (thankfully it hadn’t been booked) and any other flight that night. However it quickly became clear nothing was open and wouldn’t be until probably 0900 the next morning and other than the hoards of pushy taxi drivers there was no transport to SVO1 (the domestic terminal) at that time of night. Well at least none that we could find out about given that no-one but the taxi drivers could speak any English, including the lady at the information counter.
So we found an empty bench, as many others had done and tried to get a few hours shut-eye. Edward slept well but I got none, trying to keep an eye on our bags. At 0500 it became clear that no more sleep could be had, what with people running around everywhere and a loud ride-on cleaning machine. Given there seemed to still be no transport to the domestic terminal and not being allowed on the Aeroflot transfer bus without a domestic ticket, we finally resolved to cough up the criminal taxi fare of 500 Roubles (A$25) for a 15 min trip to the terminal.
The SVO1 domestic terminal is surprisingly small, and once again everything was closed – except, thankfully, a domestic booking office. There we managed to communicate our desire to travel to St Petersburg on the first flight, the 0710 Pulkovo Airlines service, apparently operated by a TU134, and that we were entitled to a Youth discount. We got our tickets quickly but soon discovered a miscellaneous 500 roubles charge on top of the ticket fee, which I’m sure wouldn’t have existed if we booked directly with the airline (but their office was closed). Probably a travel agents fee but could knowing Russia it could just as easily be a "we don’t like foreigners who can’t speak Russian" fee – it was all in Russian so we couldn’t say what it was for.
We went straight to check-in. There, they put all luggage through x-rays before check-in, so it all gets done, not just hand luggage. Also careful passport checks at all stages. We were allocated 9C
and 9D on the aircraft. Straight upstairs was the departure lounge, a smallish room with chairs and a little bar at one end. At the other end were a bank of counters, being the gates with a door at the end going to the apron.
, FV172 Pulkovo Airlines, RA
-134A-3, ETD0710 ETA 0830, 0710/0718 r07/0817 r28R/0822, Gate 10 SVO FT
Boarding was about 0630, so were hoarded into the passage way, went downstairs and got onto a pair of busses to the aircraft. The boarding system was surprisingly modern with electronic boarding pass readers and a sophisticated boarding system (usefully, it told us aircraft rego and pax on the flight).
On board, thing are quite unique. The aircraft is configured 2-2 and the cabin is split into four seemingly random sections, with solid bulkheads between them. The windows are large and round with no blinds but curtains. There are overhead storage racks but with no closing door (like what you see on the train). The row in front was the emergency exit, with its emergency rope (no luck if you want an inflatable slide!).
The flight itself was very normal – no inexplicable clunks or bangs and a surprisingly quiet cabin. The crew spoke English very well and announcements were in Russian and English. The one annoyance was the group sitting across the row behind us. They had brought a bottle of Jack Daniels on board and proceeded to drink most of it on the short flight mixed with tomato juice (anyone tried that). Consequently they got quite loud and obnoxious. The crew didn’t seem that concerned with the situation. Inflight service consisted of a free drink and a little marshmellow-biscuit thingy. Magazines (including soft porn) were brought through for sale to economy class.
Cabin pics of the TU134 inflight. Sorry for the poor quality – they were taken on the sly. Not sure of regulations in Russia.
The wing of the TU134 out of the window inflight
Touchdown was very fast and was followed by a very powerful and loud reverse thrust which threw the mostly empty Jack Daniels bottle halfway down the cabin.
We quickly deboarded onto the tarmac and walked the short distance to the terminal, getting a quick snap of the plane looking back. The terminal was miniscule, with one belt and an arrivals hall the size of an office. But I think the terminal only caters for Pulkovo Moscow flights, thus only handling a few flights each day. To find our bus, we passed in front of a much larger terminal which I assumed to be the main domestic terminal building. From there it was smooth sailing, despite St Petersburg metros not having signs in the station or any maps in the latin alphabet, meaning you first have to decipher the stop you want to get off at and then count the number of stops between the stop you’re currently at and that stop, so you know where to get off.
A quick snap of our TU134 after deplaning in St Petersburg and during the quick, cold walk across the tarmac
Leaving St Petersburg for Moscow involved a Joint Stock Company Enkor flight, a ticket booked previously, but only issued the night before we flew. At 1550 roubles it was cheap (around A$75), and after all, quite an exotic airline to boot. They also give a 30kg baggage allowance. Schedules were conflicting as to whether it would be TU134 or 154 operated. However, having arrived at St Petersburg Pulkovo Airport, Terminal 1 (domestic flights), no reference to any Enkor flights could be found. I wasn’t too worried – this was Russia – and I asked an airport rep who pointed to one end of the hall – it seems there are 3 departure halls in this terminal, one for Pulkovo (and some other random airlines) flights to Moscow Sheremetyevo only, one for Aeroflot (so I’m told – I was unable to find this area at all) and one for all the rest – supposedly. Anyway, after having been sent from one to the other with my Enkor ticket (my brother gave up and was just sitting with our luggage), I asked at the information counter: "Enkor flight cancelled". In one of the few occasions a Russian went out of their way to help us, she got out of her booth, grabbed me by the arm and led me to a suited man, obviously the Enkor rep, who was dealing with a bevy of other pax. This man took my ticket and as happens in spades in Russia, stamped it with several official looking stamps, told me "now you get money back so we buy you ticket on Pulkovo" and dragged me off to a further counter, the Pulkovo sales desk. Quickly going to get my brother so he could be sorted likewise, we then were told "Pulkovo much more expensive than Enkor so you have to pay more." Certainly no chance getting Enkor to rebook you on another carrier free of charge. Despite our protestations to the Pulkovo sales agent, they refused to give us the Youth fare of 1700RUB and made us pay the full Y fare of 2400RUB. This was despite us showing our ticket for the outward journey where we travelled on the youth fare. This agent explained that the sales agent in the other direction had made "bad mistake" and that the fare was only available for Russian students. Not so, as I later confirmed. Typical abuse of foreigners – it happens a lot in Russia regrettably.
Our Pulkovo ticket was for a 1910 service to Domodedovo Airport. It was currently about 1400. Not relishing the idea of hanging around the airport for 5 hours knowing there were plenty of Pulkovo services to Moscow, we asked for a seat on an earlier flight but we were told it was not possible (remember, we had just paid for a full Y ticket). Having had enough of this unhelpful lady, even though for once she could speak English, we grabbed our things and headed to the Pulkovo office in the Moscow flights departures area, where they were most happy to rebook us on the 1655 flight to Moscow Sheremetyevo airport, but ignored (or more likely did not understand) our request to get a refund back to the youth fare level.
About 30 mins later, check-in opened. We duly put our bags on the scales – 2 bags, 36kg, no problems – at least you would think. But no, we want to include your handluggage in the baggage weight... Put these on the scales please. Oh, you’re over 40kg!! Sorry, you must pay excess luggage fee. It will be 200 Roubles. According to the conditions of carriage I think they are in the right here but being very pedantic. We were not pleased, both because Enkor had a 30kg allowance and that is the airline we should have been on, and also knowing full well that we only got this treatment because we were foreigners. Others had no problems with far more. Anyhow, we weren’t allowed a boarding pass until we had the receipt of payment of the excess luggage fee. We go to the excess luggage window. It was closed. We now begin to get seriously angry, go back to our check-in lady and tell her that it’s closed. She says "then you must wait". After much loud banging on the excess luggage window, someone finally appears. 240 roubles please. "No" we say – check-in told us 200 roubles. We won’t pay any more. "Sorry – must pay 240 roubles". My brother fully lost it here and started yelling loudly at the lady, who I’m sure had no idea what he was saying, but she eventually went and got our check-in agent, who consented to bring the fee down to 120 roubles. Then, all smiles, she handed us our boarding passes to Moscow.
I think it was at this stage that I sms’d the YSSY board Perth office saying something to the effect of "never fly domestically in Russia" – though my wording may have been a little different
He was most sympathetic! not…
, FV153 Pulkovo Airlines, RA
-154M, Seat 20F, ETD1655 ETA 1815, 0710/0718 r07/0817 r28R/0822, 1650/1656 r10L/1756 r07/1802, FT
As with our first Pulkovo flight (to think we weren’t supposed to fly this airline at all and now we will have flown them twice), the flight was fine. The aircraft was a TU154M – the different aircraft type was greatly appreciated, bringing my tally of Russian types to two. The flight was early, the crew spoke good English and the cabin was clean. The seat pitch was INCREDIBLY tight and once again no bags were allowed in the overhead bins. Other than that, with the 3-3 seating, you could have been in the cabin of a 727 or older 737. The flight was almost full – didn’t get the pax load as the captain apparently didn’t have time to fill in my sheet, though it seemed quite clear to me that the Flight Attendant I asked didn’t go anywhere near the cockpit to even ask. No worries – you can’t have them all.
A quick snap of our TU154 on the tarmac during boarding
Other secretely snapped ramp shots at St Petersburg Pulkovo Airport, dominated by Pulkovo Airlines
The TU154 was quite loud in the cabin – it was great to hear the engines spool up. Also being on the wing, it is very noticeable that the wings slope downwards from the fuselage, something I have never noticed on a low-wing aircraft before. Service consisted of a cold drink and small cake – almost identical to the flight over on the TU134.
A couple of poor quality cabin shots including a wing view of the TU154M
Landing seemed quite normal – certainly not as fast as the TU134. It’s great taxiing into the Moscow airports – one of the few places you can pull into and not have any idea what half the airlines parked outside actually are. Probably one of the few places in the world these days like that. It’s quite something to look at the lines of IL86s, TU134s, TU154s, IL62s etc. Not being sure of the rules on photography, and not wanting to find out at the end of a police interrogation, I erred on the side of caution, with only a couple of very quick over-the-shoulder snaps taken.
One curious point about runways if anyone can answer – in St Petersburg we took off on Runway 28R but no Runway 28L was to be seen anywhere. Conversely, in Moscow we landed on Runway 07 but seemed to taxi over a parallel Runway to come into park (meaning it should have been Runway 07R we landed on, but the MAGs clearly said 07). Very curious. However, just so long the pilots know the deal, that’s all that matters…
On landing we quickly accessed our bags, hopped on one of the regularly departing minivans just outside the terminal, squashed in with 10-12 others and headed for the Moscow metro and onto our hostel. Another eventful adventure in Russian airspace was over… It is interesting to reflect here that not one of our past four flights were on the flights we had booked on or intended to fly.
The next pair of flights went more smoothly, including the flight I was most looking forward to – the Yak 40.
I took the metro/minibus combination out to SVO
terminal 1 as last time, and all went smoothly. Public transport to Moscow airports is fine once you know what you need to do and within more normal hours. Indeed I was there quite early and had a fair wait before check-in for Aeroflot service SU717 to Nizhniy Novgorod opened at counter 15.
717 Aeroflot (operated by Rossiya), RA
-87203, Yak40, Seat 2A, ETD2325 ETA 0005, 2250/2259 r25R/0016 r36L/0022, FT
Boarding commenced quite late, but being a small aircraft, did not take long. We all hopped on the same bus and not long after we let an Uzbekistan 767-300 pull in in front of us, the Rossiya Yak40 appeared in the gloom. My time had come. Boarding is done exclusively through the rear stairs which descend under the tail (like the 727s have). Seating is arranged in a tight 2-2 combination, with 7 rows (total 28 seats for those who haven’t done maths for a while). Cabin height is quite low – just above my head, so maybe around 6 foot. There are no overhead lockers at all and checked luggage is stored in areas at the front and back of the cabin. I would have taken photos if my 2nd camera had not also karked it grrrrrr….
As the first officer was standing at the front of the cabin assisting boarding (the one F/A was at the back), I asked if he wouldn’t mind filling in my sheet. He would be most pleased to. In fact he returned two minutes later to say that he had spoken with the captain and were happy to let me up to the cockpit for a quick look inflight. SCORE!!!!
We started up, taxied and took off quite quickly. Engine noise wasn’t that excessive though was perhaps a little more so for the back rows.
Inflight service simply consisted of a cold drink and a bag of Aeroflot pretzels. Nothing to write home about. There was no inflight magazine but a Russian newspaper in each seat. Most of the flight continued smoothly with no sign of the First Officer. I assumed they had forgotten my visit or thought better of it. But thankfully no – he eventually emerged and invited me up. The cockpit is small and very ancient looking, not surprisingly. The crew told me the aircraft was about 25 years old and was made in the final year of Yak 40 production. I’ll check the details in due course. They also proudly told me that it is unique in that there is very little automation. Other than a basic autopilot system for cruise, the aircraft is all pilot controlled. A handheld GPS was taped to the instrument panel to assist with navigation. There is a pilot, a co-pilot who is also navigator and an inflight engineer who occupies the middle or traditional jump seat. Behind that there was just enough room for me to stand with the cockpit door closed behind. The Yak 40 is only capable of flying at around 550km/h, surprisingly slow for what looks like quite a sleek jet aircraft. This flight, we cruised around 20,000ft.
After a few minutes chatting about aviation with the co-pilot, who seemed the only one not busy enough to have the time to chat (establishing that he only graduated from pilot school last year – not a bad first posting), they commenced descent. As the workload increased I asked whether they would like me to return to my seat. After a quick conversation in Russian the First Officer asked if I would like to stay for landing. Of course I refused and returned to my seat… Yeah right!
As there was no jumpseat available, I thus experienced my first ever landing standing up. Not knowing what to expect and not having any sort of bracing in place, I held on as best I could as we touched down perfectly on the runway at Novgorod, Russia’s 3rd largest city (2 million people approx). Quite an exhilarating feeling, knowing that I had just landed in the cockpit of a Yak 40 aircraft in the middle of Russia!! The crew then filled out my form and we chatted briefly before I had to leave to catch the passenger bus to the terminal, where I had planned to crash for a few hours before the next morning Sibir (Siberia) Airlines) flight back to Moscow. The apron was quite empty. A notable guest was a Lufthansa A319 joining some unknown airline’s TU134.
But alas, Russia’s 3rd largest city’s airport is no more than a single story Russian concrete block with all lights off. Indeed the bus did not bring us to the terminal, but to a gate in the airside fence where a guard opened the gate, delivering passengers directly to the curbside. It was FREEZING – probably around -10 degrees or colder.
I walked to the nearby dark terminal, hoping to have some luck and find it open to some degree. Whilst it was most definitely closed, I found a way in a side door and was making my way towards some inviting benched at one end when the police found me. Soon there were three of them, insisting to see my passport and ticket. Expecting the oft-used Russian treatment (or so we hear) of throw you in prison and ask questions later, I was a little cautious, and was quite relieved simply to be told that no I couldn’t sleep in the terminal – I would have to go to a hotel and come back the next morning. As it happens, someone from a nearby hotel was right there (hmmm, I wonder how much he’s slipping into the coppers pockets…) and it was made quite clear I had to go with him for the night. He promised "5-star luxury" for US$50. I told him I didn’t want 5 star luxury (not that it would be anyway) and that I didn’t have US$50 (the truth). In the end, he accepted 1000 roubles, just under A$50, about all I had with me. As it turned out, the room was very nice and in most books I got quite a good deal, as it included transfers to and from the airport.
The next morning I got transferred back to the terminal, which this time was open, for the flight back to Moscow (this time Domodedovo Airport). Check-in was a straightforward process and so was boarding.
1 Sibir Airlines, RA
-154B-2, Seat 19A, ETD0750 ETA 0850, 0755/0801 r36L/0848 r?/0857, FT
The aircraft, which had also been on the apron last night, was an older model TU154, I was pleased to see. However, without the markings as such on the fuselage, there was no way I could tell the difference between that and the newer TU154Ms. New engines maybe? The interior was quite tatty – ripped fabric, dirty cabin walls etc. However seat pitch was better than Pulkovo which was a blessing.
The Sibir Moscow-Novgorod-Moscow route is Russia’s first attempt at low-cost travel, offering bargain fares to try and entice passengers off rail. Thus fares for the service commence at 300 roubles one way, or about A$13 including all taxes. However I am told it’s a flop – by air is still far more expensive when you factor in taxi costs and the time taken to and from the airports, which are generally a fair way out of town. This flight was about 50% full. No idea on actual loads as the F/A informed me the Captain was "not allowed" to fill in my form.
The flight went smoothly with a cold drinks service offered. The one thing I noticed on this flight was the very noticeable changes in flight level – plane suddenly banked up and then would suddenly level out. Not being a pilot I have no idea if this is the result of the aircraft type or an inexperienced pilot. You also very clearly noticed the engine pitch changing – far more so than on the last TU154 flight.
We landed on time at Domodedovo. It is a massive airport – lines of planes and a sparkling new airport terminal – which seems to be undergoing further expansion. We parked remotely however, and the bus took us to arrivals. It was then 5 mins before I was at the express train station right at the airport (added bonus of free tickets for Sibir passengers) and in the train back to the centre of Moscow.
And so ends my first foray into Russian domestic aviation. Overall the flights were fine, despite all the western stereotypes. What isn’t fine is the disorganisation, varying customer service and differing treatment of foreigners on the ground before and after the flights. Clean that up and flying Russia would be little different to flying Australia – just with more exotic planes and airlines!!!!
I post this in Vienna, having just arrived on an uneventful Austrian Airlines flight. Our scheduled A320 was subbed at the last minute by an Austrian Arrows F70 for the 2.75 hour flight, a little disappointing as OE-LFI was a repeat rego (the same plane that had unceremoniously dropped us in Tbilisi rather than Yerevan a few weeks back).